Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

I Aten’t Dead

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on March 30, 2009

Just without home net access until tomorrow – moved house last week. Normal posting resumes tomorrow.

Ada Lovelace Day: Enid Mumford

Posted in science by Andrew Hickey on March 24, 2009

I committed to writing a thing for Ada Lovelace Day, a day in which people are meant to blog about a woman they admire in the technology field, before realising I would be spending the day in Edinburgh, so this may be a little more brief than I would otherwise intend.

The woman I’m going to write about is Enid Mumford. She may seem an odd choice, as her degree and field of expertise was not primarily a technical one – she had a BA in social science, and worked in management for much of her career. However, she specialised in an area that is still horribly under-valued – sociotechnical studies. Her work was in the cultural and social impact of technology. Very early on – in the 1970s, especially with her work for DEC – she noticed that large-scale IT projects don’t ever actually achieve the things it’s claimed they will achieve, and identified the reasons why.

In almost all cases, big IT projects, in industry or government, are designed with little or no reference to the people who will be using them – they often create, rather than solve, problems. Mumford’s ETHICS (Effective Technical and Human Implementation of Computer-based Systems) method, based in cybernetic principles, was one of the first and most effective attempts at designing whole systems – ensuring that computer systems would be created to be part of a larger system, so they’d be an effective part of the workflow, so they’d actually solve a problem, and also ensuring that the people who worked with the computer systems wouldn’t be threatened by the new technology, because they would be involved in the design from the outset. Mumford’s methods, if used properly, would ensure that any computer systems introduced would actually be helpful to workers rather than being the expensive messes we see regularly from big IT consultants.

Mumford set these ideas out in a book, Designing Human Systems, which can be read for free here, along with a number of sequels which set out the use of these ideas in specific industries. Shortly before she died, my uncle (who worked with her) agreed to work with her to update the book to take into account modern programming and design techniques. Unfortunately, she then became ill, and the work was completed by my uncle Steve and Holly working on the main body of the text, and Steve and myself writing the new material on Agile Programming techniques. This book was published (credited to Enid, Steve and Holly) as Designing Human Systems: An Agile Approach To Ethics (NB I don’t make any money from sales of the book). Unfortunately, she died before I got to meet her, but working so closely with her text (doing endless redrafts of footnotes, proofreading and so on) gave me a very intimate knowledge of her ideas, and made me realise how important they are.

Mumford as a ‘social scientist’ had more influence on the development of computer systems over the last thirty years than almost any qualified programmers, but her name is not especially well known outside of specialised circles. In particular, she managed to show, quite conclusively, that employee happiness is actually essential to true efficiency. It’s a lesson that many, *many* IT projects would do well to learn from.

More Helpful Answers To Lost Searchers

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on March 21, 2009

Being the second in an occasional series for people who’ve got here looking for things I haven’t yet helped them with. Here are search terms that have arrived here in the last week, and my advice to them:

what film should i watch?
Doctor Strangelove. It’s very funny, and directed by Kubrick, and Peter Sellers is great in it. If you’re following the Bechdel rule, then I’d suggest Ghost World.

song that goes i am i am i am super man
MANY people have searched for this or something similar. The song you’re after is Superman, originally recorded by 60s band The Clique, but you’re probably after the cover version by REM from the album Lifes Rich Pageant.

“foskett first worked with brian wilson”
Jeff Foskett joined the touring Beach Boys in 1981, replacing Carl Wilson who had quit the band for a while at the time, so that will have been the first time he worked with Wilson. He remained with the band until 1990, and joined Brian Wilson’s touring band in 1999.

how wealthy is bruce wayne
Currently Bruce Wayne is stuck on prehistoric Earth with nothing but his wits to get by. When he gets back to our time, he will be one of the two or three wealthiest men in the world again.

batman after final crisis
The situation with Batman is currently up in the air, as about a thousand useless miniseries are coming out, but Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely will be doing a Batman And Robin series in May, which will presumably be the one you need to read if you want to follow the threads from Morrison’s Final Crisis.

will the real smile album ever be releas
I’m sorry to take it out on you, anonymous searcher, but I get sick of Beach Boys fans saying they want ‘the real Smile album’ to come out. What, exactly, do you want? The Beach Boys put out an album, Smiley Smile, based on that material, in 1967, and it was a great album. Then on the Good Vibrations box set in 1993 a compilation of Smile recordings that was about as long as a typical 60s album came out, and it was pretty good. Then in 2004 Brian Wilson released a finished, complete piece rerecording of the whole thing from start to finish, and it was an absolute masterpiece.
By my count that’s *three* ‘real smile albums’ that have come out – and any *one* of them can stand with the best music ever released. But that’s not good enough for you, is it? Your sense of entitlement is so huge you want to keep bothering a sick man to revisit one of the most painful periods of his life – a period he’s repeatedly stated he hates thinking about – and you’ll never, ever, let him move past that. No matter what the poor man does, it’ll never be good enough for you because you want an imaginary perfect album rather than anything that can ever exist in reality.
Well, fuck you. If your idea of fun is to pester people with severe mental illnesses and never let them get on with their lives, fuck you. If three fantastic albums aren’t good enough for you, fuck you, you selfish, whinging, entitled prick. I hope all your Sea Of Tunes and Vigotone and Project Smile CDs get burned in a fire and the only Beach Boys music you have left is a copy of Looking Back With Love.

word finishing in ence
Evidence. Hope that helps.

blue beetle theological implications
Well, I’m no theologian, but the only thing in Blue Beetle that appears to have any theological implications to me is the confirmation in one of the later issues that the DC Universe behaves according to an implicate order version of quantum mechanics, a la the theories of David Bohm. The implicate order interpretations, which assume an underlying order behind the apparent randomness in quantum behaviour, are much favoured by more mystical religious people, and there’s even a branch of study called quantum theology, which you might want to look into, though it looks like utter piffle to me.

guardian national salary leak
I presume you’re referring to this – the tax-scrounging scum Barclays taking taxpayers’ money and then using it to prevent the Grauniad reporting their tax avoidance. Don’t let the bastards get away with it. Link this from your own blog.

why didnt the beach boys release soulful
The released version of Soulful Old Man Sunshine is actually a composite of several takes that were never put together properly while the band were still together. The official reason it was never released was because Carl Wilson was unhappy with his vocal, especially when he slurs “shoulful old man shunshine”, but I suspect it’s just because no-one in the Beach Boys seems to have heard of the concept of ‘quality control’, with all their releases since about 1970 essentially being put together at random (“let’s not release Fourth Of July, but put Take A Load Off Your Feet on the album instead”, “No, let’s not put out Still I Dream Of It – Hey Little Tomboy is clearly the song to keep from these sessions”)

jack nitzsche lost that lovin feeling
Actually, that’s one of the few Spector records that Nitzsche didn’t work on. Gene Page arranged it, in an imitation of Nitzsche’s style.

which strips great outdoor fight book?
The Great Outdoor Fight starts here.

Nicola Bryant wank
Oh, go away.

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99.873% of statistics are made up

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on March 17, 2009

Today I was involved in a Twitter argument with two Prominent Liberal Democrat Bloggers. I’ll leave their names and the precise details of the argument out, because it’s not germane (and also because I may inadvertantly misrepresent one of them in the very abbreviated precis that follows), although anyone who really wishes can look it up on Twitter. But the argument went something along the lines of:

Prominent Liberal Democrat Blogger 1: Sign this petition banning the distimming of doshes!
PLDB2 : But that says that studies show that distimming causes gostaks to go blind. In fact all the studies show it causes them to grow an extra foot!
PLDB1: That doesn’t matter! Just sign the damn petition! Distimming is wrong!
PLDB2: I’m not signing a petition with things in it that are demonstrably untrue!
PLDB1: But you can never be 100% accurate, so just sign the damn thing! Anyway, you can prove anything with statistics!
Me: Are you seriously saying that just because absolute inaccuracy is not possible, you shouldn’t make any effort to remove obvious falsehoods?
PLDB1: Don’t sidetrack the discussion! This is about distimming! Anyway, people will argue over anything, no matter what you do.

And then on, for many more 140-character responses, essentially going round in circles.

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this attitude recently – a couple of weeks ago there was a storm in a teacup over a famous campaigning organisation running a campaign for an excellent cause, but with a headline figure that was not very accurate. I won’t link to anything about that (although most politically-minded people reading this will have a good idea what I’m talking about), because I don’t want to give ammunition to the kind of people who will use the inaccuracy against the cause itself.

But the thing is, I shouldn’t have to do that. I shouldn’t have to choose between telling the truth and discrediting a worthy campaign. Using misleading or outright wrong facts is the kind of thing we excoriate the Mail or Express about, and we shouldn’t be doing it ourselves. Were the Mail to headline “75% of people think immigrants should be hanged!” then we’d be all over the article, tearing it to shreds, but the same people would be silent if they saw something saying “75% say ID cards are wrong”.

Citations of studies and statistics can be very useful, as can using raw numbers. Amnesty are currently campaigning to stop 128 executions in Iraq., for example, and that’s an important campaign. But it stands or falls on the 128 number, so they’ve ensured they’ve got it right. If it turned out there were only five people being executed, and the other 123 were being given free chocolate instead, Amnesty would quite rightly argue that the death penalty is still wrong, and that any executions are too many. But they would look idiotic. (Sadly, this is not a case where the numbers are wrong…)

We need, as ‘progressives’ (whatever that very devalued word still means) to be at least as strict with ourselves as we are with the other side. In particular, we need to acknowledge unpleasant evidence. We can’t say, for example “Cannabis should be legal, as it’s harmless” – it’s clearly *not* harmless, as the many people suffering from cannabis psychosis would attest. But we *can* say “Cannabis should be legal, *even though it can cause harm*, as the harm it causes is less than the harm caused by denying adults the right to do as they wish with their own brains”. Saying “the minimum wage doesn’t have any negative effect on jobs” is wrong – the minimum wage clearly prevents the creation of some small number of very low-paid jobs. But saying “the overall positive effect of the minimum wage – which prevents workers from living on starvation-level incomes – more than offsets its small negative effect” is truthful.

If our arguments are right, we don’t need spurious pseudo-evidence to back them up, and if they’re wrong we shouldn’t be making those arguments in the first place. Using factoids, rather than facts, is one of the things that makes people think ‘they’re all the same’ – because sooner or later one of those factoids will contradict the listener’s personal experience, and s/he will write the source off as a liar.

We can’t get everything right, but it’s not difficult to find a reliable source for any statement of fact you make (if it can be done for Wikipedia it can be done for a political campaign or petition) and if you do find such a source, at least you can then say “It was in reliable newspaper X or peer-reviewed journal Y”, rather than imitating Reagan and saying “facts are stupid things”.

Yesterday’s playlist link

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on March 17, 2009

For some reason no matter what I do WordPress will not actually allow the posting of spotify links using a href= tags. So the link itself is spotify:user:stealthmunchkin:playlist:6s4DKxeEadvf5vCKZyCqNC .

In other ‘news’, having been fairly critical of Liberal Conspiracy the other day again, I have now sold out decided to change the system from the inside. I am now part of their netcasting team, and my first set of links will be up on receipt of the cash tomorrow.

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